The Unabashed Academic

27 August 2013

What should we tell a colleague about DBER?


I had an interesting conversation with a colleague in another science department yesterday. A student wants to do a PhD in their department with a dissertation in DBER (discipline-based education research). That department has never done such a radical thing and we talked about whether they could put together a committee with enough on- and off-campus expertise to make it work at a scholarly level that he would respect. But in the discussion he mentioned that, one problem he had with education research is that it was too dogmatic.
This took me aback a bit. My own take on what DBER teaches me about teaching is that I often don’t know what’s actually going on. Whatever I assume is happening with my students it's probably more complicatedt. But I suppose we come across as dogmatic after learning much about what doesn’t work even though we expected it to.
I was reminded of some of my first experiences in PER (physics education research). Having worked for a few years in the ‘80s on bringing the new personal computer into the physics classroom, I was intrigued by what I learned about the growing community of physics education researchers. I was  inspired by the thoughtful and insightful writings of Arnold Arons and the careful experimental research of Lillian McDermott. So when I decided to switch my research from Nuclear Theory to PER (in 1992), I did it by taking a sabbatical at the University of Washington.  Lillian’s research group there was changing the way we though about teaching and Arnold was still living there after having retired a few years earlier. I had already had some encounters with Arnold and discovered that we really enjoyed arguing with each other. (A story for another time.) He agreed to meet me for lunch at the UW Faculty Club (the one with the marvelous mountain view) at least once a month for conversations.
Well, when I got to UW I learned that although I enjoyed arguing with Arnold, not everyone else did. Having lunches with a few of my nuclear and particle physics colleagues, I found that just mentioning his name was enough to raise hackles around the table – and turn some people red in the face with anger. Arnold apparently went round yelling at other faculty about how they were doing everything wrong and ruining their students. Their response was that they shut down and stopped listening to him.
Now my colleague from the other department wasn’t yelled at. But he definitely got the message – from some of our seminars, writings, and workshops – that we felt we had the answers and we were saying that, “if he would just listen to us and do things our way his teaching would go much better.” He is an award winning lecturer, takes his teaching very seriously, and feels strongly that he has an effective personal style that he doesn’t want to give up.
Even as a PER person myself, I resonated more with his side than with the PER view he was reporting. I know that lecturing is not usually as effective as an engaging activity, yet I still often lecture (even about not lecturing). When I talk to my colleagues in a seminar or colloquium I do try to have some engaging activities and to open some discussion. But both with my students and colleagues, I often take a chunk of time to tell a story. I’m a bit of a storyteller and I know that people interact will with a well-told story. I have had both students and colleagues come up to me years later and remember (accurately!) a story I have told in a lecture that they heard. So even when I do a flipped class, I often spend some time “lecturing” – telling some personal story that links to the point (like the one you are reading now).
So what is it that I want a colleague to take away from what we have learned in PER and DBER? I try to tell them that we have learned a lot that is helpful but that we do not have a magic bullet. Here are four things I would say that we have learned that it is valuable for a teacher.
1.     Think carefully about what your real goals are for the particular population of students you are teaching.

2.     Find ways to get sufficient feedback from the students that you can figure out, not just whether they have learned what you have taught, but how they have interpreted it and what knowledge and perspectives they bring to your class.

3.     Respect both the knowledge they are bringing and them as learners. “Impedance match”* your instruction to where they are and what they have to work with.

4.     Repeat. That is, go back and re-think your goals now that you know more about your students.
Sometimes we do sound too dogmatic. “Just make your class more interactive.” “Be the guide on the side instead of the sage on the stage.” “Flip your classes.” “Use this particular instructional method and follow the steps carefully.”
Of course this is exactly the sort of thing we tell them not to do with their students. If we want to change the way our colleagues teach, we have to engage them in the process, learn what they bring to the table, and let them construct their new way of teaching for themselves – with appropriate support, occasional guidance, and scaffolding.
This last (scaffolding) in this circumstance means providing them with or helping them develop the tools to learn for themselves. Accomplishing step 2 is decidedly non-trivial in our traditional large-lecture science classes. We often give few tests and rarely get sufficient feedback in lecture from enough students to get a sense of the class. It’s why clickers are potentially a game changer – but only if used to probe more deeply into student thinking and if that information is used to change what we do. Faculty may need some scaffolding to get them to both implement step 2 and see what one can learn from it.
One of the things I’ve taken to doing in the past few years in my large class is to give challenging (often multiple choice or short answer) quizzes once a week. I return them in the next class and present the results of how many people chose each answer. I then demand a discussion of why people chose the wrong answers, am respectful of those answers, and try to help us all understand why people might naturally choose those answers – and how we could all develop approaches to thinking about the problems that would help us catch those natural errors in reasoning. (For more discussion and an example, see the “Instructional Implications” section of my Oersted Lecture.)
So I want to raise the messages we have been sending about how to teach our students to a meta-level. If you are a DBER colleague who wants to help other faculty improve their teaching
1.     Think carefully about what you like them to actually do.
2.     Find ways to get feedback from them to understand where they are and what they bring to the table.
3.     Respect the knowledge and experience they bring in and work with them where they are.
4.     Repeat.
Thanks particularly to Renee-Michelle Goertzen and Chandra Turpen for insights and discussions that helped me in developing this perspective.
* For those who are not physicists, “impedance matching” is a term from signal theory. If you are sending a signal down some channel (“channel” means a signal path like a wire or a fiber optic cable) it has some resistance to the signal – it decreases the energy of the signal slightly as it travels down the channel. The parameter that measures the rate at which the signal loses is called the impedance. If you connect two cables and send a signal from one cable into the next, a lot of it will reflect back and not go through unless the impedances of the two cables are the same -- matched.

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